Published March 30, 2012
Siri may be able to tell you the capital of Kazakhstan and show you the city’s weather forecast -- but her descendents will be able to book the flight that gets you there.
Virtual assistant robots -- like Apple’s (AAPL) Siri, GoArmy.com’s Sergeant Star or Jenn on alaskaair.com -- may soon be able to recognize and retain the tastes and preferences of users and extract context from conversations, emulating more of a two-sided dialogue.
Technology under development for "bots" focuses on back-and-forth conversation, a new phenomenon that essentially gives the sensation of a computer standing in a room, aware of its surroundings and offering feedback.
“Typically, what happens with Siri is you ask a question and you get an answer,” said Next IT chief technology officer Chuck Wooters. “You are having a conversation, but a limited one.”
That will change as bots, connected nearly every hour of everyday through mobile devices, learn from their users by retaining search history and processing trends.
Ross Rubin, principal analyst of The NPD Group’s connected intelligence division, called Siri’s capabilities “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“Sometimes it’s hit or miss because they have a relatively incomplete view of who we are,” he said. “As the collective network learns a lot more about us it can leverage that understanding to make better decisions on our behalf.”
Siri may not be the first with this type of technology, but Apple raised people’s attention to artificial intelligence last year when it integrated Siri into the iPhone 4S. IBM (IBM) supercomputer Watson, who beat former Jeopardy champions on live television last year, also contributed to the growing interest.
Today’s virtual agents have flaws that still need to be ironed out, particularly involving regional accents and dialects that sometimes confuse them. Siri has even run into some legal trouble, with the latest suit accusing Apple of deceptive representations regarding Siri, including her ability to make appointments and find restaurants.
Apple didn't respond to FOXBusiness.com for this story. However, experts say the language problems and other kinks will be smoothed out as bots become more aware of their environment and as developers use more advanced speech recognition programs.
“We have to judge it against what humans can do today,” Rubin said. “Sometimes when you are having a conversation with another human there will be ambiguities and people need to ask questions for further clarification.”
If all goes as planned, the modern bots will have the ability to ask questions and learn preferences, which can be helpful to the regular smartphone user and crucial to companies that rely on customer service.
Wooters, whose company makes intelligent virtual assistant products, said these virtual agents would have the potential to become so intelligent they’d act as though they were hired to “follow us around and do things for us.”
“We are going to shift from being a search culture to a do culture -- a culture of just wanting to get things done and having intelligent virtual assistants to get it done for us,” he said.
Bots are appetizing to companies because they can swiftly learn and retain knowledge, and interact with multiple people simultaneously, cutting down on the need for dozens of associates.
“If you go to Jenn at Alaska Airlines and say, ‘I want to fly from Spokane to Seattle,’ she can actually have a conversation with you and ask you when you want to leave,” Wooters said.
Theoretically, with a few back-and-forth questions, Jenn could help a potential customer find a flight, book it for them, and even choose a window seat if it knows that has been the preference in the past.
“Just as you were to hire a new personal assistant, it would take some time of working together until they really understood your working style and what was important to you,” Rubin said.
That learning curve is already seen today.
When swine flu hit three years ago, Jenn of Alaska Airlines (ALK) was at first speechless despite being inundated with queries, having never before heard of the influenza. But within hours, programmers updated her database so she could not only respond to concerns but retain the knowledge in case H1N1 ever resurfaced in the future.
Jenn could “handle huge volumes of traffic as a result of that,” Wooters said, who has a Ph.D. in speech recognition.
In addition to their sharp learning skills, virtual assistants provide an outlet to people who would otherwise feel embarrassed to unload their concerns on a fellow human.
A woman speaking to Sgt. Star, the Army’s virtual recruiter, for example, may open up more easily about personal items, such as whether there are individual or group showers at military bases.
“With the virtual agent, they feel more confident, so you get honest answers [or questions],” Wooters said.
This helps companies quickly get to the root of customer wants and desires, similar to how Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN) and Facebook track activity to display targeted ads. It also gives virtual agents the tools needed to navigate to specific pages and ensure a more efficient sale.
“Investing more in these kinds of services serves companies like this well because it provides a better incentive for consumers to share data,” Rubin said.
Of course, there are still challenges. New words and topics will continue to spring up and people could potentially be turned off by a piece of technology that is tracking their every move.
Companies need to ensure customers that the “gold mine of data” they are collecting is being used to improve their product and better serve customers, Wooters said.
Meanwhile, developers will continue making bots more relatable to humans through apparent personality traits, such as humor or sarcasm, to try and make their deepening integration more appealing.
When asked, Sgt. Star of the U.S. Army says he's 6" 3 ½" tall and weighs 212 pounds, “well within standard for a 27-year-old.”
The icon next to Jenn’s chat box is of an actual woman, and as she’ll tell you, her favorite colors are white and blue – the colors of Alaska Airlines. While she doesn’t have time for hobbies, Sgt. Star is trying to get her into skydiving.
“Perhaps at some point, there will be enough trust to actually engage software agents to make decisions on our behalf and really rely a lot more on them,” Rubin said.